If you’re South African, you are quite accustomed to seeing people begging at street corners and traffic lights. In fact, it is quite sad that most of us, South Africans, are actually desensitised to this. It is almost ‘normal’ already. As a South African or someone that has visited SA, you may also be familiar with car guards and many other types of people you might be enticed to give money to on your way to work, to a friend’s house or the shops.
The reason I decided to write a blog about this was because I have been wondering about the value exchange when transacting with a beggar, juggler, dancer, window washer or car guard.


Two weeks ago, on a Monday morning as I drove to my office, I noticed 3 beggars on my way. I also thought about 2 others that I see regularly begging in the area. The first one had no legs at all and was in a wheelchair, the second one had badly bent legs but was able to walk and the third was an older man with a board hanging from his neck expaining that the company he worked for liquidated and he needed money to feed his family. The fourth and fifth beggars are a young, relatively well dress man and a guy holding a trash bag wearing a suit and tie.

Each of them had a different approach to begging. The guy in the wheelchair waved as he rolled between the cars. The guy with bent legs aggressively shook his tin at the window of each car he passed. The old man with the sign on his neck just stared down the centre of the row of cars with little expression on his face. The young, well-dressed man just stood to the side of the road, oddly not in the centre as the others did, his body also facing the side of the road and hardly looking at the cars. It was clear he needed money, but even clearer from his body language that he was extremely uncomfortable being there. Finally, the guy holding the trash bag, very formal in his attire was smiling, waving and bobbing his shoulders up and down, showing the bag to each car that he passed (indicating that he’d take your trash from your car for a small donation).

Now, say you were to take a trip to a shopping centre in Sandton from Fourways – you would see at least three of those beggars and the following:

If you drove into Sandton from the N1 highway, you would find the window-washers. They are less common in other areas since the metro police have removed them from most parts of Jo’burg. These are young guys wielding a squeegee and diluted soap water. They spray it all over your windshield without your permission and then vigorously start cleaning and ask for a tip afterward. They are not known for being friendly, especially toward female drivers. PS. I have seen window-washers in first world countries too – except there they stand on the sidewalk and wait to be asked to clean the windshield, then they run over and do their thing.

If you drove to Sandton along William Nicol Drive, a more common sight at traffic lights, especially on weekends, would be the crate dancers. When the lights go red, they run out into the road in front of the cars and start a dance routine, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, doing fancy moves, spinning and flipping the plastic crates that form part of their routine. They are generally young and very friendly, and very passive in their style of asking for money. Equally timid and entertaining are the guys who juggle while the light is red. These are examples of the entertainers.

Stick with me, I am getting to a point here…

Then we have the salesmen. These ladies and gentlemen walk up and down the road between the cars at traffic lights selling things like hand-made arts and crafts, hangers, cold drinks, toys, license discs, sunglasses, mobile phone car chargers etc. They are also generally friendly and non-intrusive. However, there are salesmen who point at your wheel or bumper to get your attention, then they stick something through your window (like a hat or air freshener) for “free”, telling you it’s yours and ask for a small donation in return. The small donation is never enough though and they carry on asking for money until they’ve extracted the full value of the free product out of you.

Finally, as you arrive at your destination, you will likely find car guards. These are men and women that ‘look after’ your parked car and may from time to time help you unload your groceries into your car or help you get out of a busy parking area by being your eyes in the blind spots. I believe the rise of car guards was a result of car theft in shopping centre parking lots and, as with many products and services, the added benefits came naturally – helping you park, reverse and unload your shopping. I personally have mixed emotions when it comes to car guards because it’s a job, but they don’t really do anything for me, but they watch my car, but I have insurance, but not everyone has insurance and they help bring order to chaos in busy parking lots, the debate goes on…

Getting to the point of this blog – value exchange.

Now, let us be blatantly honest with ourselves – if we had to give each of these people some spare change from time to time, it will not cause us to go broke. Depending on how much you’d give and how often, it may make a slight change to your budget, but it won’t hurt you.
If you have read some of my other blogs or the pre-release chapters of my book, you will know I talk often about value exchange. What makes people part with their hard-earned money? People are willing to give it up when they feel the value that they extract is worth more than their money. This does not refer to the actual value of the product or the service. It refers to the perceived value, the emotional reward. People part with money based on emotion. Even when you buy bread – if it was purely a decision of your lizard brain, you would take any bread off the shelf (survival), but as soon as you see brand names and prices, your limbic system will take over and do some calculations and then create a logical reason to justify it.

Thus, you and I would give to or support each of these people on our way from Fourways to Sandton if we felt that the emotional reward was worth our money. Freely giving to a beggar, with no expectation in return is extremely satisfying to most of us and therefore worth the money we part with. If we feel the level of entertainment is worth our money while we wait for the light to go green, we’ll give up some money. If we feel grateful that our car is still there when we come out or needed help backing out the parking bay, we’ll happily give up our money.

So, this is my wish although I am 99.9% sure no beggar will ever read this:

My wish is for the guy without legs and the guy with bent legs to be supported by the public until he learns a new skill with his hands and then to be supported even more when we exchange our money for his products.
My wish is for the old man who lost his job because of a liquidation to dig deep and find a way to reuse the skills he learned at his job; to either use them again for his own small business or to teach someone else for a small fee what he knows but can’t use anymore.
My wish for the well-dressed young man who really doesn’t want to be there begging, is that he will lift his head, face his donors, believe in himself and smile. He came from somewhere and life may have beat him up temporarily, but he can get back to where he was before if he believes in himself again. He won’t have to beg for long, he has time on his side, unlike the old man.
My wish for the guy holding the trash bag for donations is that he will realise he already understands the basics of value exchange and that he will up his game – he doesn’t know it, but he already understands a little about business, he is seemingly healthy and he is friendly – he is more capable than he believes.
My wish for the window washers is that they will learn how to make themselves seen, clearly state the offer and give the best service they can when the customer says ‘yes’. A friendly and clear message that says “I can do something for you, if you want” will be better received than the current, aggressive, unsolicited one.
My wish for the dancers, jugglers and sales people is that they will use the street as their platform to move up toward larger stages and bigger deals. They too understand the principle of value exchange – give value first and then receive in return. They also understand the principles of hard work, practice, sacrifice and putting yourself out there for rejection and criticism.
My wish for the car guards is that they honestly do this kind of service for the sake of helping others. Very often an elderly lady will need help with her shopping bags or reversing her car into a busy parking lane, learner drivers will need guidance and people who can’t afford insurance will need someone to keep an eye out for their car. I hope that maybe as a car guard they will see things that we don’t pay attention to and find an opportunity to solve a problem and build a business out of it.

My wish for South Africa is that each of these people will find a way to move themselves up the value chain and become more independent, more prosperous and be able to look back one day be proud of themselves for what they were able to achieve despite where they were the day I saw them for the first time. I hope that you too consider the fortunate position you are in to add more value to the world, in whichever way you see fit, and I hope you do!

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